The Constant Inspiration of Junior Dad

Over the last several years, while I have been writing this blog, I have mentioned Lou Reed and Metallica’s Junior Dad.  It is the final set of lyrics on the final album that Lou Reed released during his life time.  Earlier this week I put on the song while I was walking around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake.  Every Time I hear it I feel inspired by its artistic fearlessness.  Like the best art, I don’t even know if I can articulate why it moves me so much.  The lyrics are create strong images, without definitive meaning, even if they hint seriously at several themes.  I am always especially knocked out at the section of the song that starts at the breakdown and goes through the end of the lyrics.  (The song is over 19 minutes long!)

Scalding my dead father
Has a motor and he’s driving towards
An island of lost souls

Sunny, a monkey then to monkey
I will teach you meanness, fear, and blindness
No social redeeming kindness
Or – oh, state of grace

Would you pull me up
Would you drop the mental bullet
Would you pull me by the arm up
Would you still kiss my lips
Hiccup, the dream is over
Get the coffee, turn the lights on
Say hello to junior dad
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad
Psychic savagery

The greatest disappointment
The greatest disappointment
Age withered him and changed him
Into junior dad

Almost like the films of David Lynch’s, it has a quality that deals in dreams and the subconscious.  Like dreams, the meaning is so close, yet just beyond our reach.  It could be about Reed’s own mortality, or about the realization of him or a character that hey are turning into their parents, despite the best intentions not to.  It could be about original sin, or how violence is passed on from generation to generation.  It could be about how even the things we fear and hate, the things we have struggled against all of our lives, eventually turn to dust.  There is something both horrifying and comforting in that last thought. Emotionally I do feel the song has that weird mix of emotions.  It’s like a fire that burns everything in its wake, leaving things to begin anew.

The song is part of a concept record, albeit one where the whole album is more or less as abstract as this one song.  (Even if you like this one song there is no guarantee you would like the rest of the album.  It is a brutal, ruthless thing.  Yet it is extremely beautiful and artistic in its own deranged way.  Aside from this song and maybe the first, stay away if dissonance and sonic brutality are not your things.  I happen to be one of the few that absolutely loves this record, but I understand why some would not be drawn to it.)  It is also elastic enough for other interpretations.

Anyway, I have written about all of this before.  But every time I am looking for some inspiration, to feel something more intense than I am feeling in the moment, this song never lets me down.  Reed, like George Carlin, never succumbed to resting on his laurels.  He never became mundane or safe or tried to cash in on the easy money.  He started with the Velvet Underground and ended with this.  What a career!


Devils Angels

The Misfits, the original version with Glenn Danzig, is one of my favorite punk bands.  Their records, despite sounding like many of them were recorded in a trash can, or maybe because of it, adding to the B movie vibe of their songs, have held up extremely well over time.  Today Danzig released a covers album called Skeletons.  I haven’t heard it and can’t remark on it, but the first song, Devils Angles, is great and the closest thing he has done to The Misfits in a long time.  This cover first appeared on the internet a couple years ago, but I am glad it is finally getting its official release.

John Stewart and Fleetwood Mac


Fleetwood Mac, despite their enormous presence in modern pop music, only actually put out five albums with their classic line-up.  (Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Jon McVie, Christine McVie)  They are a pop group that is strong at all positions.  One of the things that makes them great is Lindsey Buckingham’s mastery of the studio, in creating rock and pop music that is accessible, while also being infused with a strong sense of mystery.

Although there is plenty in their catalog if you include solo albums, and even the albums they did while lacking one of the classic five, if you love that sound you might want to check out some of John Stewart’s records in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  John Stewart was famous long before he worked with Lindsey Buckingham.  He first found success as a member of the Kingston Trio.  (Buckingham is a huge fan of that group.)  He also wrote Daydream Believer.  Later on he made solo records, some of which went on to critical acclaim.  In 1979 he put out an album called Bombs Away Dream Baby with Buckingham coproducing, playing guitar, and singing back up vocals.  That album is out of print, and even used copies of it on CD are $30 and up if you search online.  However, after that he put out an album called Blondes.  Buckingham did not produce that, but did return to sing backups and play guitar on one song.

I’ve found the album to be incredible, a lost gem.  I think that while he originally influenced Buckingham, Buckingham also in return influenced Stewart in the studio.  Produced by Stewart himself, there is a sonic quality that sounds similar to some stuff by Fleetwood Mac circa Tusk and Mirage.  While the lyrics are only decent, the music and melodies on this album have that mystical California sound that is always beautiful, but which can go from joyous to sad in the blink of an eye, and is often in between containing both emotions.  The guitar playing is also freakishly good.  If someone would have told me that Buckingham plays on all of the songs, I would have believed it, not being as familiar with Stewart’s solo output.  Anyway, this is one of those beautiful albums that one would probably never hear of if there wasn’t some digging involved.  (Every song is as good if not better than the one above.  And there is enough variety to make it a well rounded album.)

Bruce Springsteen and Allen Toussaint

Kevin Russell recently bought me Allen Toussaint’s album Southern Nights.  Although I was aware of Toussaint, I’d be lying if I said I was much more than that.  A lot of Southern soul, blues, country, and rock made its way into my formative years in the North East, but for whatever reason not a lot of stuff out of New Orleans did.  It took moving to Texas, and especially Russell himself, to make me understand what I was missing.

Southern Nights is an absolutely stunning soul album with great songs and arrangements to die for.  It’s lush and ornamental and almost seems like a grand street in New Orleans turned into sound.

For a bass player who spends a lot of time listening to bass lines, the record a treasure trove of riches.  Every bass line is simple enough where it is memorable, but at the same time played with a impeccable feel.

While I was playing the record, my brother walked in while the song Back in Baby’s Arms was playing.  He said right away, “that’s exactly like Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town.”  Now Toussaint’s album came out three years prior to Darkness.  Both songs start with an intro that is eerily similar.  They both start the same, and just deviate in the second half of the figure.  It’s not just a melodic thing, they both feature a bass and piano playing roughly the same line.  I don’t know how this came about.  Either Springsteen stole it, or they both arrived at a similar place independently.  They are both possible.  Given that Springsteen is a huge soul music fan, it is entirely possible that he heard it and coopted it for his purposes.  (I’ve never read specifically of the connection between these two pieces.)  However, the line is also simple enough that two people could think it up in two different places in time.

It doesn’t really matter.  Musicians have been stealing all throughout musical history.  Also, there are only so many notes that one is bound to stumble upon the same idea independently at times.

I think what is interesting is how really similar pieces chave totally different emotional landscapes created through lyrics and singing.  Toussaint’s song has a warm feeling to it mirrored by his voice.  Springsteen is singing in his dramatic Roy Orbison inspired voice.  Along with the rest of the album there is a certain bleakness to the song, where people are coming to terms with adulthood.

I think even if Springsteen flat out stole the idea, it is still artistically valid.  Creating something new is nothing more than assembling old pieces in a new combination.  Springsteen has always been someone that took different elements of rock n roll history, soul music, and folk music, and used it to create his own language.  Here he is combining soul music, the drama of Roy Orbison, with a cinematic and literate sense of language.  Although I’m not as educated on Toussaint’s history, there is no doubt one could trace his music backwards to different building blocks.  Although the two pieces start similarly, they end up in dramatically different emotional universes.


Rats in Battalion are Ruling the Street Scene

“Rats in battalion are ruling the street scene”

Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies album still translates anarchic fun years on.  Hello Hooray is still one of the greatest opening tacks ever and it just goes on from there.  That band was at the pinnacle of their powers then and Alice himself is as always a greatly expressive singer. Listen to his vocal on Generation Landslide or anything really.

Maybe this album shouldn’t appeal to me at this point in my life, but it does.  Life often seems like a dinner party that you are invited to, with formal agreed upon rules, not only absurd, but that you had no part in conjuring up.  As an adult you know the way to change things is to engage with dialog, to participate in the long game.  But some part of the soul wants to flip the table and run out screaming into the night, as much werewolf as man…


Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield Release New Song

I Don't Cares

Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield Release New Song

Paul Westerberg, one of our country’s best rock n roll songwriters, has returned with a new single created with songwriter Juliana Hatfield.  Their band is called The I Don’t Cares and the single is 1/2 2 P.  The song is a charming pop song, nothing more and nothing less, and it appears there is an album on the way.  As someone that has long enjoyed Westerberg’s work, especially his way with melodies, I am looking forward to this.

There is a clip of the song over at Amazon here: 1/2 2P

Alex Chilton’s ‘Like Flies On Sherbert’

I’m in love with the sound of the electric guitar.  When played right, through the right equipment, and recorded the right way, there is nothing better sonically.  An electric guitar, with just the right amount of distortion and effects can conjure up its own universe.

Alex Chilton, former member of Big Star and The Box Tops, has an album called Like Flies On Sherbet, that I am in love with right now due to the guitar playing, especially the sound of it.  This record, although regarded by some as a masterpiece, has just as often been misunderstood.  Allmusic’s David Cleary said that, “Regrettably, this album can not be recommended under any circumstances.

Many comments have seemed to center on the albums seemingly thrown together nature.  Especially compared to the immaculate arrangements of the early Big Star albums, it can seem like little care was put into the playing and recording of this album.  But I call bullshit on all of that.  I don’t even find this album that weird, by modern standards, and even fans of this record often think of it as bizarre.  To me it sounds like a Pavement record, or so many other indie bands that Chilton influenced, with deeper roots in early rock and rhythm and blues music.  It might have been strange at the time it was made, but that was because it was ahead of its time.  It’s one of those albums that looks forward and backwards at the same time.  It is rooted in the rock of the late 50’s and early 60’s, but it also conjures up early 90’s indie rock.  (The album was released in 1979.)

But really, when I listen to this on headphones, the guitar sounds are terrific.  You could almost pluck them out of the air and chew on them.  There is no doubt that someone knew what they were doing when they were being played and recorded.  Sometimes they are a little out of tune or off rhythmically, but if you understand guitar playing even a little, it takes a while to get that perfect blend of chaos and beauty together.  No kid picking up his first guitar is going to make noise like that.

Listen to the guitar break up above.  It, like so many on the album, sounds on the verge of falling apart, but never does.  It’s a high wire act.  It sounds like two players face to face in the studio, close enough to sweat on each other, pushing and pulling and driving each other to a new level.  There’s nothing complicated about it, but this is not the work of amateurs.

Keith Richards once compared a song to a knife fight in a phone booth.  This whole album is like that.  This album has just enough hooks to allow the listener a way in, but also enough scrappy rule breaking so that it is full of the mystery of life.  Forget what any reviews say about this record.  If you love the sound of guitars, it’s for you.

Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, and Songs of Stoic Regret

I’ve always liked a quality in songwriting that I call “stoic regret”.  Sometime, long ago, I read an article talking about a song as being filled with “manly regret”, but really it is a quality that can be sung by someone of either sex. These are songs of heartbreak and devastation, but also the will to go on, even if one realizes life will never quite be the same.  It is an adult emotion, that ability to shrug off life’s suffering, even if that suffering leaves a mark that will never quite go away.  Often these songs are romantic in nature, but they don’t have to be.  This is also more of a lyrical quality than a sound.  Singers in all genres have these kinds of songs and sometimes, in the case of Johnny Cash’s I Guess Things Happen That Way or Willie Nelson’s Nothing I Can Do About it Now, the music can be quite upbeat.

Sinatra had a lot of songs like these.  His albums like No One Cares and Only the Lonely have songs in this world.  It’s a place where tragedy and comedy meet up, albeit a dark, close to the breast, gallows humor kind of comedy.  The heart breaks, but the will to live goes on.  It’s the sound of total defeat, but once you’ve gone as low as you can, what is there to do but immortalize it and song, where it becomes some kind of maudlin tragicomedy?  I’m not saying that all of these songs were written with a slight nod to comedy in mind, but they are so tragic and dramatic sometimes that the mask of comedy can’t help but be there at the fringes.  I’m also not saying that I am laughing at these songs.  I don’t mean it as any kind of irony filled appreciation.  The emotions to these songs are always complex, like real life, and therefore often leave you feeling different things at the same time.  The mood that the listener is in can often make one lean to one side of the other in the comedy and tragedy spectrum.  These kinds of songs can have different meanings in different mental states.

A really great album is Sinatra’s Watertown.  It’s the only album that’s arrangements reflect the 60’s pop market.  It’s also the only album that he overdubbed his vocals on.  It’s a masterpiece, like a novella in song.  It’s a concept record about a man whose wife has left him, leaving him to raise his kids in small town America.  Since he still has the kids, he must go on.  He can’t simply give up.  The album is full of reflection.  How did this happen?  There are also reflections on the everyday life of the album’s narrator.  He notices who the kids look like and how they’ve grown.  There are lots of little details and the album is definitely more towards the tragic side of stoic regret.

When we’re young we often think that a relationship ending, or some other thing that seems tragic, is going to destroy us.  But really these kinds of things are just mere bumps on the road of life.  These kinds of songs come from the adult perspective, because however low the narrator is, they realize this.  The gift of life keeps giving, better get ready for it!

i don’t know why I am often drawn to these kinds of songs.  I think it is the fact that there is truth in them, and the truth is often complicated.  This complexity is great for drama, which any good song needs to have a dose of.  I think also, because one can view these songs from different ends of the tragedy/comedy spectrum, the material never ceases to be relevant.



Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

The other night I watched the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.  It is a documentary about the band Big Star , it’s initial failure and long slow road to cult status.  Despite having long known who Big Star were through The Replacements song Alex Chilton, I was never one of those people pining over Big Star records in my bedroom.  Once, at a used record shop, I bought a Big Star compilation.  I have no idea if it was a bootleg, etc.  I have never seen it before or since.  Although there were several songs I loved on it, I realize now that it’s track listing was a bit bizarre.  While it contained many of the band’s most popular songs, they were in an order that didn’t provide the best context for them.  (Context in the world of music is really important.  Often when I put my iPod on shuffle, my favorite songs often aren’t as enjoyable as they are in their natural habitat.  Also think about how the way in which a great live band puts together a set, and how when done right the show builds in energy at just the right moments.)  Also, since hearing the remastered versions of the Big Star catalog, I realized how sonically muted the versions I had were by comparison.

I thought the movie was fascinating. Not only because it tells the tail of Big Star, which is interesting in its own right, a story full of tragedy and redemption, but it gives you a sense of Memphis regional music at the time.  In the pre-internet age, music was much more regional, allowing for strange mutations to arise.  Communication wasn’t as easy, so strange little scenes developed in different locations.  (Although Big Star were even strange for Memphis at that time and place.)  I do feel that with the current economic model of the music industry, especially in regards to touring, that music is becoming more regional again.

The movie does what any good music documentary should do: It communicates what is special about the music and makes the music sound great.  It not only tells Big Star’s story in a compelling way, but when you actually hear the music, the music sounds extraordinary.  As I commented before, I think hearing the details of Big Star recordings, in the right context, really makes their music come alive.  The movie also has alternative takes of these songs, allowing one to see how they were built into their final and superior versions.  Their music is full of ecstatic joy and harrowing sadness, sometimes threading the needle between the two.

Although I new the rough outline of the Big Star story going in, I found that the film gave me a new appreciation for their recordings.  I think there is enough new elements, with great footage and interviews with those still alive, to recommend it to those that are already fans.


“Waiting for World War III While Jesus Slaves”

Last night with Shinyribs I played a in-store for the new Ted Hawkins tribute record, Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins.  It was a wonderful thing, with performances by James McMurtry, Ramsay Midwood, and Randy Weeks, some of my favorite songwriters in Austin.

Tonight I am lucky enough to be going to see Jackson Browne in San Antonio.  Browne has long been one of my favorite songwriters, who often gets overlooked I feel.  Many lump him in with all of the other singer/songwriters of the 70’s.  But Browne was always more intelligent and fearless than most of his contemporaries.  Don’t let the beauty of his melodies lead you astray.  (And he is an absolutely brilliant melody writer.)  He has a laser sharp wit and a moral courage that allow him to write songs that are often poetic and political at the same time, which is a hard trick to master.

I have always wished that I wrote the song Lawyers in Love.  It’s a great pop song and also a hilarious critique of our culture of mindless consumerism, among other things.  Written in and about 1980’s Reagan era American, it still says so much about what is going on now, as many of our current problems began then.  As I was a child in the 80’s, I have never minded 80’s era production techniques as much as some do.  (Nostalgia often plays a major role in our musical tastes, no matter how we try to deny it.)  However, even if the keyboard and drums sounds of that time period bug you, listen to the melody and lyrics, which are tremendous.